Tens of Thousands in Turkey Protest Tyranny of the Majority

(By Juan Cole)

Tens of thousands of Turks demonstrated in Istanbul and other cities on Wednesday coming off the funeral of 15-year-old Berkin Elvan. Elvan had been in a coma since last June, when he went out to get bread for his family and inadvertently got caught up in the Gezi Park protests. He was allegedly struck by a tear gas canister fired by police. He became a symbol to youth protesters who alleged police brutality and disproportionate use of force to disperse protesters.

The crowds attempted to make their way to Taksim Square, the scene of last summer’s protest against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to turn a park into a mall. They were, however, stopped by phalanxes of militarized police in battle gear, deploying industrial strength teargas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.

President Abdullah Gul and other officials of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party expressed their condolences over Elvan’s death. But PM Erdogan, who was campaigning in the countryside in conjunction with upcoming local elections, rather churlishly declined to mention Elvan.

Erdogan accuses the demonstrators of being part of a foreign plot and of being undemocratic in their methods, saying that if they want to compete politically they should mount campaigns for office instead of just milling about in the street.

Erdogan’s conception of democracy as simply holding elections, after which elected officials have free rein to do as they please, is closer to elective dictatorship or managed democracy than it is to democracy per se.

One problem of democracies based on elections is that sometimes there is a natural majority for a particular party or ideological tendency. If one party keeps winning, what prospect does the minority have of ever having a say in governance? The American founding generation was fearful of such elective majorities, and sought protections for political minorities in the form of checks and balances, as well as in the form of the Bill of Rights.

Thus, freedom of peaceable assembly is one way of countering the tyranny of the majority, by allowing the minority’s voice to be heard in public. After the Arab Spring, Erdogan appears to be afraid that such public protests could grow to the point where the elected government might be overthrown, and I would concur that that would be undemocratic. But Erdogan’s deployment of massive police repression is disproportionate. His tightening hold on the press and the judiciary is increasingly dictatorial. (TV news channels in Turkey were afraid to show the Gezi Park protests last summer, which is not a sign of a healthy democracy).

Ultimately, Erdogan is correct that if the opposition wants to amount to anything it will have to learn to compete successfully in elections. But he is dead wrong that peaceable protest is anti-democratic. Democracy is not elective dictatorship or the tyranny of the majority.


Related videos:

Euronews: “Turkey: clashes between police and protesters after funeral of teenager Berkin Elvan”


BBC: Police in Turkey clash with protesters after boy’s funeral


7 Responses

  1. I’m no fan of police brutality, but I’m just not convinced the protests have anything to do with democratic aspirations, corruption, or whatever (Erdogan isn’t the first Turkish premier to flirt with authoritarianism) nor do I believe the protests were encouraged by a foreign government.

    In my opinion, it’s an ideological battle between the secular and social conservatives. The Kemalists loathe Erdogan because they see his government as a threat to their lifestyle.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if most protestors wouldn’t mind if the army (considered the guarantor of secularism) rules if it just gives them some peace of mind that their lifestyle won’t be disturbed.

    • Sorry, I know too many of the people out in the streets and they know too many others to take seriously your “theory” for a second. If I knew nothing of what has been transpiring in Turkey over the last few years, and accelerating over the last 12 months, I might believe it. But your claim is akin to the idea that there’s no serious objection to the security state or the economic disparities in the US because there’s always been an intelligence service of some sort and a plutocratic class, so it’s only communists or the extreme right agitating for a coup.

      • Point taken – yes, some folks out there have legit grievances, and I shouldn’t have generalized outright.

        But there’s no denying that during the height of the protests, the majority were Kemalists, chanting in favor of the military.

        • Oh, I would, actually. And given that the military was all in jail at the time, a lot of good it would have done, anyway.

          I made a point of asking … well, not so much asking as saying that the Army would certainly be one solution, and the response from these so-called “White Turks,” mostly in their late 20s and 30s was resoundingly No!

          There was also a large Alevi contingent that has historically not done well under the old-guard Kemalists, and I doubt doubt the TKP/ML was out there for the army, either … well, other than to take it on.

          I mean, I know it was a popular theory at the time for commentators who were still down with the AKP but have since backpedaled significantly, but Taksim wasn’t Tahrir.

  2. Oh, for crying out loud, Juan. Egemen Bagis, former EU Ambassador, present graft suspect, called the mourners “Necrophiliacs.” That’s your idea of apology? Had Berkin been an Egyptian protesting for the MB, there would have been a state funeral. He’s Alevi, so what matters it?

    Meanwhile,. pro-government papers are suggesting that the family had him disconnected from life support — all remaining 19 kilos of him — as an election plot.

    Erdogan’s response? “This will not hurt the economy!” It’s a Jewish/anarchistic/Cemaatci coup, you see.

  3. Democracy was classically thought to be a gateway to tyranny. It truly is the tyranny of the majority, that is why we leaven democracy with checks and balances, however imperfect.

    There is a big dust-up right now in the UK over the role of pedophiles in party building in the last few decades. Pedophiles definitely have to live in the shadows despite their efforts to get “out of the closet”. Tyranny against pedophiles? Liberty for concerned parents and innocent children? If 60% of the population were pedophiles, it would be legal in a democratic regime. Ancient Athens was fairly comfortable with pedophilia and a democracy from time to time.

    Even now, gay marriage is a minority cause. While more people despise gay marriage than support it outright, even more don’t really give a damn and thus acquiesce to its spreading via the legal system. It is spreading not through majority rule, but via robed masters, who quizzically discover today that gays are a Constitutionally protected class even though they never were for the entirety of 250 years; it wasn’t even a question actually.

    Let’s not turn democracy into a fetish, let’s instead look at the actual lives of people and what makes it better or worse. Democracy can do both. (Think Libya)

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